It is summertime for medical students. While second and third year students are conducting summer research, leading service activities, or starting clerkships, senior students are on their subinternships in search of a story to share in their personal statement. In an editorial in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine, leaders in medical education actually propose retiring the time honored tradition of the personal statement. These concerns come amidst a new report demonstrating that upwards of 5% of personal statements are plagiarized. While the merits of personal statements are debated, current residency applicants are still stuck trying to create the perfect one. So, for the MS4’s, here are the top Do’s and Don’ts for your personal statements and some ways to get started.
- Remember your audience. You are writing for program directors and selection committees. They want interns and residents who are hard working, competent team players who are good with patients. They are also reading hundreds to thousands of personal statements in one application period. (Case in point – one IM residency program director may read upwards of 1,500 personal statements).
- Follow three basic principles. Keep it succinct, clear and cohesive. The personal statement (PS) should be no longer than 1 page and should include paragraph indentations.
- Be prepared to talk about anything you write in your statement. Interviewers often use the personal statement to help get a conversation started. The personal statement will, in some sense, be a way for you to introduce yourself to your interviewer and to the program.
- Make the statement about yourself. Avoid the habit of describing how great the field of X is or perseverating about a lengthy patient story without mentioning much about yourself. It’s easy to go on and on about one experience, but you have a lot of ground to cover. We generally recommend a “hook” to open, followed by 2-3 paragraphs describing one or two experiences or activities that helped cultivate your interest or prepared you for the field you are entering. These experiences should be put into chronologic order and might be a college activity, medical school service and/or research project or an experience on a clinical rotation.
- Think long and hard about your first line or ‘hook.’ The first line of your personal statement is most likely to be remembered so spend some time on it. If your first line is about Mrs. H’s CHF, it may not result in the best ‘meet and greet’ conversation. Embedding a patient story later into your statement is appropriate, but is not an exciting start given that you’re writing to doctors. For memorable ‘hooks,’ think about what makes you unique and what might be a good conversation starter. This could be the ‘a-ha’ moment you experienced while volunteering abroad or something interesting about yourself such as your first career, an unusual hobby, an athletic or professional achievement. Your job is to relate this to your passion for the field.
- Make sure your personal statement matches your application. If you are opening with a discussion about the major impact that a global health experience or service activity has had on you, it should be in your ERAS application. Select the most substantive experiences to discuss – the one hour per month volunteer activity is probably not going to make the cut. You should not ‘rehash’ your application but go into more detail about how and why certain experiences shaped your interest.
- End with your future goals. The last paragraph of your statement should have some clues or keywords about things you are interested in (academics, medical education, research, and subspecialty). Often times, this will enable the program to try to personalize your visit by bringing these issues up during the interview or even matching you with interviewers that have similar interests.
- Don’t plagiarize. Program directors and faculty have read a lot of personal statements and are acutely aware of the many on-line sample personal statements out there. Resist the urge to “borrow” from these sites. The NRMP specifically notes that you must give credit for anything that you didn’t personally write.
- Don’t make it to ‘too’ personal. Sounds odd we know…but your personal statement is meant to highlight your positives. Refrain from discussing intimate details of your life that you are uncomfortable discussing with others. You’ll be asked about material in your personal statement over and over. If it is not something you would have brought up in an interview, you should probably not talk about it in a personal statement. Likewise, be careful with revealing too much about personal illnesses. Remember you are meeting people for a job interview – so you may not want to reveal your deep thoughts or memories.
- Don’t dish about dirty laundry if you don’t have to. You have faced hardships, have blemishes on your application, or you may not be certain you want to go into field X. Reserve these topics for discussion with your peers, family or trusted advisors…but not for your statement. Be prepared to discuss these issues in your interview knowing they may not even come up. There is no need to call attention to these issues before you even get a question about it. Likewise, stories of how you were stressed (either emotionally or physically) will likely raise doubts about whether you are ready for the rigors of medical training. You may need to consult with a faculty advisor here since this may vary from situation to situation.
- Don’t try to win a literary award. Remember doctors are used to reading abbreviations and not reading prose. If your sentence exceeds 3 lines, think about rewriting it. Look for the easiest way you can say what you want to. Ironically, the statement is often harder to write for those with a background in creative writing.
- Don’t diss others. Specifically, don’t talk about what’s wrong with other specialties, the difficulties your medical center may be facing, or other programs. It just makes you look bad.
- Don’t go over a page. You’re writing for busy doctors, enough said.
Stuck? How to get beyond writer’s block with personal statements:
- Look at the essay you submitted to get into med school. Chances are many of the characteristics you possessed then are still with you.
- Start somewhere. It doesn’t have to be with the first line. You might have to start writing what ultimately ends up being in the middle of your statement. It’s often hardest to write the “who am I” first paragraph so it’s okay to start with why you chose the specialty to which you are applying.
- Jot down random thoughts that come into your mind (preferably about your career) then put them into a sequence that makes sense.
- Write your statement on paper or on the computer. Don’t feel obligated to use technology in the early stages. You may be better able to overcome writer’s block by writing on paper. Ultimately, you will want to transfer your personal statement into a notepad file in 10 point courier. If you cut and paste from a word document into ERAS, you will get strange formatting changes. It’s easier to cut and paste from a notepad file.
The Five Draft Personal Statement
- Draft 1: Write something down (see “Stuck” if you don’t know where to start).
- Read it aloud to yourself and fix what doesn’t sound good (like this sentence).
- Draft 2: Have someone who knows you well and is a good writer read it with the following questions in mind: “Does this personal statement accurately represent me?” and “Is it well written?”
- Draft 3: Ask your advisor to read it. This should either be the one assigned to you or a faculty member who knows you well.
- Don’t look at it for a day or two to let it simmer.
- Draft 4: Ask an advisor in your field to read it and give you feedback.
- Draft 5: Final version!
–Vineet Arora MD and Shalini Reddy MD